A Couple Autumn Days in Forest and Stream

Back in October, Steve and I had the pleasure of spending a couple days doing our favorite things in the Missouri Ozarks.  We made our base at our usual, the cabins at Big Spring SP, our last stay here for at least three years as the cabins will be closed for construction.  For our first day, we decided to take care of something that had been on my list for a number of years, to hike the largest official Wilderness Area in the state – the Irish.  Named after the Irish immigrants who settled in this area in the mid nineteenth century, the Irish was visited and pushed for protection by Aldo Leopold himself.  The Irish was finally designated by law as an official wilderness area in 1984 after close to two decades of work by a number of caring people.  This area was virtually cleared of its timber by the early years of the 1900s, but was replanted with its current deciduous hardwood mix by the CCC in the 1930s.

Ozark Bill in the Irish
Ozark Bill in the Irish

Officially listed as 18.4 miles, the Irish Wilderness loop trail is typically tackled with a night or two of backpacking.  Being the athletic super-freaks that we are, Steve and I put down an estimated 22 miles, with some back tracking and assisting a lost backpacker (a GPS unit with topographic map display is quite the asset here), in about 16 hours.  It would have been more enjoyable with a night or two sleeping in the woods and spending more time, but we had other plans in store as well.  The image below is from an overlook of the Eleven Point River at close to the halfway point of the hike.  I will never forget standing here in the late afternoon light with hundreds of ladybird beetles covered the rocks and filled the air.

The Eleven Point
The Eleven Point

Covering 20 miles in a single day does not leave much time for taking photos.  After getting some much appreciated sleep back at the cabin, we arose early to arrive at Richard’s Canoes to be in the water by ~07:30.  We put in at Greer Spring Access (mile 16.6) and had the day to move the ~12 miles to our take out at Whiten Access (mile 27.6).  The Eleven Point offers a perfect mix of slower moving stretches and deep pools mixed with just enough class 2 rapids to keep things interesting.  Make sure to bring along some wet bags if carrying delicate camera or other electronic equipment.  We were offered autumn views like this around nearly every bend.

Autumn on the Eleven Point

As if the landscape and feelings of being on the river were not enough, the wildlife opportunity are surely the highlights for a float trip like this, assuming you are quite and keep your eyes open.  This White-tailed buck was moving upstream when Steve spotted him.

Swimming Buck
Swimming Buck

Of course the birds will be abundant along any Missouri Ozark stream at any time of year.  We were thrilled to see this Osprey come in to perch nearby as we floated.


Within a couple of miles from our take-out point, we were presented with our pièce de résistance for the float, two groups of River Otters!  The images below are the first group, a mom and four pups.  These animals were venturing out of their den to play in the day’s last light.

Three Pups

The pups seemed not too concerned, but mom kept a close eye on the floating log with ugly heads.

Otter Family
Otter Family
Otter Family II
Otter Family II

These guys will turn anything into a toy… 😉

Playing with a Twig...
Playing with a Twig…

I leave you with a sunset from the nearby Big Spring State Park and eternal thanks to those who worked so hard against heavy opposite forces so that, at a minimum, we have what we have today.

The day is almost upon us when canoe travel will consist in paddling up the noisy wake of a motor launch and portaging through the back yard of a summer cottage.  When that day comes canoe travel will be dead, and dead too will be a part of our Americanism…

-Aldo Leopold-

Wild Horizons
Wild Horizons





Birds of the Great Confluence – Part One – Riverlands MBS and Confluence SP

The Great Rivers Confluence is the area where North America’s two largest rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi, meet together and flow as the Mississippi.  This confluence is just north of St. Louis, Missouri and provides many opportunities for birds along the Mississippi migratory flyway to find the habitat they need.  These areas provide great opportunities for bird-watchers, hunters, and other outdoors types and go by names such as Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Jones Confluence State Park, Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, Marais Temps Clair CA, and a handful of other public properties that have been given mandates based on conserving the basic habitat that wild birds and our other wildlife kin rely upon for their existence.

I have been bird watching in this region for about five years and taking bird photographs here for the last two or three.  In this post, I will be showcasing six of my favorite images I have made at Riverlands MBS and Confluence SP.  I will feature another group taken at Columbia Bottom CA, which sets on the south side of the Missouri River at another time.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

The bird pictured above is an Osprey, also known as the Fish Hawk and is one of several species of conservation concern that benefit from the types of refuge that Riverlands and the other preserved and well-managed habitats in the confluence region provide.  These birds feed almost exclusively on fish so it is of no surprise that these birds utilize the Mississippi River and surrounding waterways during their migration for their supper.  These birds will use man-made structures, such as telephone poles to build their nests.  At RMBS you can find special structures designed for this specific purpose.  To my knowledge, these structures have not been used but the birds have nested in trees nearby for the past several years.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/640 sec

Probably the best known group of birds that rely on the habitat of the confluence region are the waterfowl.  In this day and age, hunting has been one of the bright spots in conservation and management of the types of habitat that ducks and swans rely on during migration.  Without hunters and the money they spend we probably would have lost much more land to development along the Mississippi flyway than we have.  The number of waterfowl hunters has decreased over the past few decades, while the number of bird-watchers, nature photographers and other conservation-minded types has increased.  This is somewhat ironical because organizations that have relied on funds generated from hunting to purchase, protect and manage wetlands are now experiencing budget shortages.  Bird-watching, photography and hiking do not, naturally put money back into the system.  If a new method of fundraising is not found, we may be facing a crisis in the management and protection of these wetlands and the chance to procure new properties for this purpose.  An obvious solution would be for private donations to be given by anyone interested in the protection of these habitats.  Anyone can purchase Duck Stamps, which monies go into managing habitats in which migratory waterfowl rely.


Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 640,  f/5.6, 1/400 sec

Other groups of birds, the waders, shorebirds, songbirds and others also rely on the habitat found at Riverlands.  This Yellow-crowned Knight Heron, for instance, is a species that is seldomly found here.  One early August morning I came across a group of these juveniles who were making their way south through the Mississippi flyway together.  As you can see, their colors and patterns make them difficult to spot in almost any natural habitat.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 250,  f/6.3, 1/1600 sec

Winter gulls are a very challenging group of birds to identify.  During normal winters, unlike the tropical winter we are experiencing this year, several rare northern migrants can be found along the dam and other man-made structures.  During the dead of winter it is not uncommon to find groups of experienced birders shivering under the frigid temperatures and gale-force winds at the lock and dam at Riverlands looking at hard to distinguish, rather drab gulls through 60X scopes hoping to find that rare gull to add to their year list.  I have done a little of this myself and it can become addicting!  These cute and graceful Bonaparte’s Gulls are rather earlier migrants that favor warmer weather than many other gulls.

Technical details: Canon EOS 50D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

Another challenging group of birds that will have the uber-birder skipping work, church and ignoring family is the shore-birds.  These birds, whom I have recently become enamored with, move through the confluence region mostly during March-May in the spring and August-October in the fall.  These are beautiful, photogenic and biologically fascinating and diverse birds.  The shorebirds are almost strictly a migratory group concerning the confluence region.  These birds have some of the largest migratory routes in the animal kingdom and their routes across Missouri and Illinois vary and can be tricky in predicting.  Farming and other land development practices are hurting this group badly across their migratory route.  Most species of shorebird have pretty narrow requirements or preferences when it comes to the particular habitat and water depth they need to thrive.  Managing a wetland becomes troublesome when the specific needs for a species is considered and skilled management practices are a must.  Unfortunately, almost half of the shorebirds of the new-world are experiencing declining populations, due almost solely to man-made influences.  Serious action needs to be taken to preserve these populations.  You can read more about this by reading the United States Shorebird Conservation Plan.

Technical details: Canon EOS 7D camera, EF400mm f/5.6L USM lens, ISO 400,  f/5.6, 1/800 sec

Next to the Bald Eagle, the Trumpeter Swan may be the most recognized bird species of conservation concern that calls the confluence region home during the winter.  Upwards of 400 of these birds and lower numbers of the similar, Tundra Swan can be seen in a single day at Riverlands and surrounding area.  These birds are rugged survivors that spend the majority of their day searching the surrounding farm fields for wasted grain and overnighting in the sanctuary’s water bodies.  These birds, the world’s heaviest that are still capable of flight, are a treasure to watch and photograph.

I often tell people that photographing birds is simultaneously the most rewarding and the most frustrating experience I can think of.  For each of these six images that I am relatively proud of there are at least 500 that were unusable.  Fortune favors the prepared photographer who understands not only how to use their equipment, but understands the behavior of the birds they are after.  Getting close is key, but not getting so close as to disturb the natural behavior and sense of security these wild animals should expect to have.  This is often a fine line.

The confluence region where the Big Muddy and the Father of Waters join was once one of the greatest wetlands areas in all the temperate regions of the world.  Farming and urban sprawl have made considerable changes to these natural habitats.  We can do something to maintain and potentially repair some of what has been lost.